Category Archives: material culture

streetscapes & architecture ~ sources of material culture

Screen Shot 2016-04-08 at 8.49.14 AM Camilo Jose Vergara’s project Tracking Time is a repository of images of poor, urban American built environments. Returning year after year, Vergara photographs the same buildings and streetscapes to chronicle the transformation of the built environment, transformations that often illustrate decay but sometimes redemption and revival.

In these images there are “fragments of stories and urban themes in need of definition and further exploration.” “I think of my images as bricks that, when placed next to each other, reveal shapes and meanings of neglected urban communities.”

Vergara’s project illustrates a critical source of sociological understanding of human nature by chronicling the spaces humans create, inhabit, and reinvent. Urban life is, of course, revealed in the faces and stories of people, but equally in the bricks and streetscapes created by those people.

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the power of images

MisogynyThis image, a family photograph, taken by Hannah Hawkes Photography has gone viral. Mostly people are outraged.

The image is a disturbing one, to be sure… a mother and her daughters with their mouths taped shut and bound with holiday lights while the father and son smile, declaring “peace on earth” and giving a thumbs up.

Why the outrage? Seems the family requested the picture and the photographer accommodated their request. What the family’s motivations were is unknown, as is often the case with images. Often the photographer’s intentions are also unknown, but in this case Hannah Hawkes decided to reveal her intentions/interpretations of the photograph. She thought it was humorous, a joke, and her subsequent post made this clear.

After being silent, now isn’t that ironic, I would like to speak! I have been called every name in the book, and have received some very hateful and vulgar comments and messages. I would like to say that as a female I do NOT and have never promoted violence to women! I do not support abuse, or the degradation of women. My controversial photo was taken by request by the family, and was in no way meant to promote abuse. This photo was taken with humor in mind, and was meant as a comical Christmas photo. I personally know this family, and have known them for many years. They are not abusive to their children in any shape or form. Also, I would like to add that no one was harmed during the process! So everyone have a very MERRY CHRISTMAS and MAY GOD BLESS you and yours!

Screen Shot 2015-12-17 at 8.41.16 AMIf the photograph is funny it is certainly an example of black humor, but there’s no indication that the family or photographer were so motivated or that sophisticated in their thinking about this image. (The claim no one was harmed during the process may indicate the photographer’s lack of awareness of what constitutes ‘harm’ and suggests a simplistic conception of the relationship between photographer and image-making.)

So, the outrage depends on the context… a family photographer who takes pictures her clients want taken, but has seemingly little awareness of the meaning of what she is doing. Given that, the outrage makes sense. Viewers see this image as misogynist because both those being photographed and the photographer lead us to a literal reading of the image.

Put this same image in other contexts, say an arts based investigation of gender relations, and the image turns from disgusting and outrageous to powerful and evocative. In the first instance the image promotes the subjugation of women, in the second the image reveals that subjugation. This revelation is powerful because of the juxtaposition of middle class bucolic family imagery with the silencing and restraint of women alongside the freedom of men. The family image punctuates the message by focusing on the inter-generational perpetuation of women’s subjugation… the young boy’s grinning thumbs up reveals the arrogance and smugness of the power men feel they have/have over women. Yesterday, The Guardian published a story titled The Year in Sexism: How Did Women Fare in 2015? and the bottom line is not so well. That story didn’t go viral, and fewer people were outraged… but the messages in the story and this image are consistent and complementary.

Images compel emotional responses and we can use them both to learn about social phenomena (like family, gender relations, southern cultural norms, and so on) and to communicate about social relations. The literal intention of the family and photographer, the support for the photograph expressed in comments on the FB page, the outrage of media outlets, and the image as found data all speak to the power of images in human experience and understanding. Powerful, never simple… never literal in what they may reveal.

Design meets social science

I spend some time when teaching research methods trying to help students understand the notion of material culture… not so much the archeological notion of material culture, but the human fabricated world we currently live in. We are so accustomed to just asking or watching people in order to understand human nature that we overlook the rich data record of objects, spaces, environments we have created that say so much about us. From an anthropological stance we can make some sense of what is valued by examining housing styles, graffiti, music, cityscapes. But, so what? Charles Constantine’s thesis looks at funeral practices and rituals and although it is not a stellar piece of social science research it’s a pretty good description of contemporary North American death traditions. Based on this investigation, and the real point of Constantine’s work is to reconsider design elements of death rituals–coffins, urns and burial places. Influenced some by the ‘home funeral’ movement, Constantine re-envisions what the things and places associated with dead bodies might be like, especially in an affirming, positive way for the living.

So he designs a coffin that is a coffee table. Urns that can be used to ‘plant’ the dead thus contributing to life. Discussions of his work on design blogs haven’t been very kind–my guess is that says more about a cultural taboo on seeing death as part of life more than it does about the ideas or the design. His designs are innovative (although I personally don’t like the aesthetics of the coffin/coffee table) and quite beautiful (his urns are lovely organic pieces of sculpture).

I am left wondering sometimes why we do social science research. I don’t have a strong utilitarian bent, I think knowing about is a worthy end. But I don’t mind seeing this marriage of understand the social world through research with an eye to a thoughtful reconstruction of our social world. I don’t suspect Constantine’s designs will change the big business of death, but how informative to have this unique perspective on the funeral practices we take for granted.

crowd sourcing images as data

Crowd sourcing is an interesting strategy for data collection that I’ve written about and you can read about it here. Here is another example of crowd sourcing images around a topic, in this case the use of photo-sharing service Instagram asking teachers to  post photos throughout the day capturing moments they saw as representative of their daily lives as educators. There is a rich potential to answer a wide range of research questions with these images as the data set.

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people and stuff ~ a few more thoughts on material culture

Consider this strategy suggested by Ali McCannell, a UBC graduate student ~ if you want to know what matters to people in a particular community, city, country visit a convenience or corner store and see what’s for sale. Her example was from her time spent teaching in Korea where she noted the following commonly available items in pretty much any small shop: “grooming items, booze, double eyelid tape, a huge selection of yogurt drinks, kimchi and worm larvae.” I won’t speculate on what that list might mean, but at first glance it speaks volumes. What’s in your corner store?

People’s stuff can be interesting and useful in a range of research methodologies. For example, in narrative research one might collect and analyze stories but look also to people embedded in their environment, including how they talk about it. Although not social science per se, a new book Artists, Writers, Thinkers, Dreamers: Portraits of Fifty Famous Folks & All Their Weird Stuff illustrates such connections. While this book is more a novelty, it does illustrate the interconnections between people and the things they use, surround themselves with and value. It gives us an idea of how to think about objects in relation to social meaning of lives and equally important it illustrates how those connections might be represented beyond text based descriptions.

food ~ illustrating how material culture explains many things

This post is about food, really about food as a window on culture. It is meant to illustrate how something ordinary can be a powerful analytic construct. So even though this is about food, it’s not really about food, it’s an illustration of an idea.

Food is core to all cultures, it is part of the traditions, ceremonies, economics, cosmology, and social structure of any cultural group. On the surface, food is, well stuff one eats. But if that’s all it were then given our particular eco-environment we would eat whatever physically sustained us. Not true. Cultural anthropologists, food scientists, environmentalists, sociologists ~ folks often known as food scholars ~  study food as a window to cultural meanings and values. The Society for the Anthropology of Food and Nutrition is a good place to begin exploring the meaning of food and its complex intersection with every other aspect of social life.

Food as material culture
Food can be the window to ceremonies , to eating and health (Eating Right in America), to the artisanal food movement (The Life of Cheese), to globalism (Greek Whisky: The Localization of a Global Commodity), to social solidarity (in the allegory of long spoons in many cultures, and Foods, Farms and Solidarity). Where we prepare food matters, and Emily Contois’ Not Just for Cooking Anymore: Exploring the Twenty-First-Century Trophy Kitchen illustrates that kitchens are places where food, as well as social and cultural capital, are produced.

Food as Representation
Hungry Planet: What the World Eats illustrates how globalization, migration and rising affluence are affecting the diets of communities around the globe focuses on 30 families in 24 countries. Each chapter features a family photographed alongside a week’s worth of groceries. There are many images of families food shopping, cooking and eating, but the primary images are staged ~ the family in the background, and the food they eat in the foreground. Text describes the details or the week’s food, including the cost of the food.
And, food and literature are always an interesting combination. A notable example is, of course,  Alice B. Toklas’s literary memoir disguised as a cookbook . Instructive as representation is Fictitious Dishes: An Album of Literature’s Most Memorable Meals, in which Dinah Fried cooks and photographs meals from famous fiction. Each photograph is accompanied by the passage in which the recipe or food description appears, as well as a few comments about the respective author, novel, or food.

Photographs courtesy of Dinah Fried

on the rights of privacy in research that harvests social media for data

Following up on my previous post on the Frontiers of Psychology decision to retract a published paper that investigated conspiratorial ideation by analyzing blog posts, the most recent statement by the Frontiers group re-writes its reasons for the retraction:

Frontiers came to the conclusion that it could not continue to carry the paper, which does not sufficiently protect the rights of the studied subjects. Specifically, the article categorizes the behaviour of identifiable individuals within the context of psychopathological characteristics.

And, they continue: “we also must uphold the rights and privacy of the subjects included in a study or paper.”

A troubling feature of this revised retraction is that is contradicts the first, which asserts there were no ethical issues with the research, but now there are. This does not speak well for the journal, its editors and the umbrella Frontiers group. (See here for commentary about the media coverage of the journal.)

But the heart of the matter is whether the identity of  bloggers who made comments openly and publicly should be protected? The short answer is, no. The key here is that bloggers’ personal comments are public and so once made, bloggers give up their rights to privacy. And indeed, in the discourse one presumes these bloggers do not wish to be anonymous, but to own their viewpoints.  Blog comments are not responses to a researcher’s queries offered in the frame of most social science research, which does offer protection of privacy through confidentiality and anonymity. The blog comments are therefore a legitimate source of found data that support a range of analyses, including in this case what they might reveal about conspiratorial ideation.

I would note though that this matter is not straightforward and harvesting of social media (Facebook, Twitter, blogs) is still new territory for social scientists. There are essentially two positions:

  1. what is archived on the internet is public, and no consent is required from those who created the data
  2. what is archived is public, but the content creators imagined they were writing in private and so consent is required

(See here, for one discussion of both sides,  here for a discussion of the blogosphere as a source of data, here for a commentary on qualitative research blogs. And here for a legal opinion on the matter.)

comic books ~ and you thought they were just for your amusement!

Studies of material culture can open a window to understanding meaning and interaction. Objects are the focus of study and it is no surprise that very specialized foci crop up with communities of serious scholars investigating a certain type of object. Such is The Comics Grid, an open access journal that “aims to make original, media-specific contributions to the field of comics scholarship and to advance the appreciation of comic art.”

While your childhood entertainment likely included reading comics and comic books, these artifacts are a part of human existence and therefore of scholarly interest. The Comics Grid is just one example of the many resources in the study of comics, see also, just a few more examples:

Comics Research

the University of Florida’s resources page for comics studies

The International Journal of Comic Art

Needless to say, there is plenty of contentious quibbling about whether comics scholarships is, well, you know scholarship. But, of course, it is, although that doesn’t mean it is all good. But what is absolutely true is that comics are created by humans and, as such, like any other human made artifact they are culturally interesting.

the meaning of ‘handmade,’ the evolution of cultural artifacts

The largest market for ‘handmade’ goods is Etsy, the online marketplace for all things vintage and handmade. Until recently, their definition of handmade was that it was not factory-made. But Etsy has changed the definition of ‘handmade’ largely because of its success… sellers aren’t able to keep up with the demand for their products. So, Etsy is ushering in its own industrial revolution by redefining handmade to allow sellers peddle items they produced with manufacturing partners and to hire staff and use outside companies to ship their wares.

The size of your shop is up to you.
Hire help if you need it or collaborate, even from different locations. Everyone who helps you make handmade items should be listed on your shop’s About page.
You can use shipping and fulfillment services.
If it’s right for your business you can let someone else handle these logistics. Keep in mind that shop owners are ultimately responsible for buyers’ customer service experience.
Manufacturers can help you produce your designs.
Sellers create their handmade items in many different ways. Partnering with an outside business is okay, but we’ll require you to be honest about how your items are made.

Some see this as a sell-out, an unconscionable compromise to what it means for an object to be handmade. But this redefinition of the meaning of handmade is precisely what happens with the use of objects in social contexts… high demand meets the very slow process of making everything without machines and so handmade comes to mean something you make with your hands, possibly aided by a machine (like a sewing machine, loom, soldering gun, and so on). Using something like a loom to weave a rug is just such an example, and watching a Turkish woman weaving a rug still looks like making something by hand. When an object includes parts that have been manufactured or is made with the assistance of a tool, it may still be considered handmade, the outcome of an individual’s creative work.

The meaning, role, and value of artifacts is fluid, changing with human use and interpretation.